Color Study for 'Breaking Home Ties' depicts a father and son from a rural ranching community sitting on a New Mexico train platform, waiting for the next train to take the young man off to his first year of college. Rockwell captures this rite of passage with his trademark ability to convey an entire narrative in one seemingly simple scene. In the final version, Rockwell changed the setting to depict the pair sitting on the side of a farm truck, yet the study nevertheless achieves the same poignancy that makes the finished painting so beloved.
With few characters and an uncluttered setting, Rockwell creates dramatic impact. The juxtaposition of the pair’s distinctive physical attributes and body language powerfully communicates the generational gap that divides the Depression-era rancher—who has likely had little to no formal education—from his college-bound son. The rancher wearily hunches over with his elbows resting on his knees, his weather-beaten and unshaven face downcast and angled slightly towards his son. By contrast the young man, alert and fresh-faced, looks with youthful optimism down the tracks impatiently waiting for the train to arrive, for his future to start. The boy’s large and weathered hands, however, subtly disclose his ranching background and are a visual reminder of the important, albeit fading, link with his father and his roots.
The theme and subject of the present work was deeply autobiographical for Rockwell, inspired by his own experiences of fatherhood. He later recalled, “I was trying to express what a father feels when his son leaves home. Jerry, my oldest son, had enlisted in the Air Force; my younger sons, Tom and Peter, had gone away to school. Whenever I feel an idea strongly, I have trouble painting it. I keep trying to refine it, express it better” (The Norman Rockwell Album, New York, 1961, p. 142).
Because of this perfectionist impulse, preparatory studies were a fundamental component of Rockwell’s creative process. He typically executed color studies like the present work after creating several intricately detailed and large-scale charcoal drawings, which allowed him to plan and refine every aspect of his complex compositions. The present work was the fifth version of the composition Rockwell executed. He utilized the color study in order to develop the palette of a final painting, as he knew he must consider the work’s ultimate placement on the cover of The Post before choosing any pigments. To accomplish this he typically painted directly on a photograph of a drawing scaled to the size of the intended reproduction (Fig. 1). Rockwell made several alterations to the palette in the final version of the work, including the rancher’s hat and the color of the boy’s neatly pressed suit. Often exhibiting a more painterly style of execution, Rockwell’s color studies allowed him to select the color combinations that would achieve an immediate and dramatic visual impact for his enormous audience of Post readers.
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